Book Reviews of The Scottish Invention of America, Democracy and Human Rights
- Review by Robin Evans-Jones, Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland, HISTORY SCOTLAND, Volume 5, Number 2, March/April, 2005, 56.
This interesting book seeks to trace the influence of Scottish thinking on the founding fathers who constructed the main intellectual foundations of democracy and freedom of the early American Confederation (now the USA). Central amongst the foundations were the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the Federal Constitution of 1787. Amongst those influenced were Thomas Jefferson and native-born Scots like James Wilson and John Witherspoon who were principal contributors to the documents in question. In particular the book argues for a distinctively Scottish provenance for modern western ideas that are expressed in these, and some other, documents of what is the proper relationship between a people and those by whom it is governed (hence the references to “democracy” and “freedom”). Many past scholars have traced such ideas back primarily to the influence of English culture, in particular to the writings of John Locke.
The theme that debates the intellectual provenance of some ideas as between Scotland and England is an old one. Thus, for example, there are those who argue that the Scottish Enlightenment was the flowering of a long-standing genius in Scottish learning. Others are of the view that it happened merely because, after the Union, Scotland was exposed fully to civilization (i.e., England) for the very first time in its history.
Ideas, especially good ones, do not arise from nothing. They are hard won by, and from, those who go before us. A particularly interesting feature of this book lies in its thesis and continuity in Scottish attitudes and thinking from an ancient pan-European Celtic culture. The authors argue that the Celtic traditions survived in Scotland, but not generally elsewhere in Europe, partly because of Scotland’s geographical remoteness that meant that it was never over-whelmed either militarily or, perhaps more importantly, culturally. The intellectual and attitudinal traditions of this Celtic culture that was fundamentally opposed to the oppression of a people by its political leaders or geographical neighbors were elaborated by later Scottish thinkers, especially John Duns Scotus, and by influential writers of the Scottish Enlightenment. The fundamentally democratic (even rebellious) Scottish tradition in these matters, was, in turn, transmitted to north America through some native-born Scots who were major players in the American revolution, and through education in burgeoning institutions like Princeton where students of ethics and philosophy had been instructed closely in the Scottish intellectual traditions.
This book seeks at one level to make a contribution to the debate on the provenance of fundamental political ideas that were formative of the modern USA. In this regard it contains some philological, structural and substantive comparison between documents like the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of Independence. It very usefully reproduces the text of both. In its major part the book is an engaging, and clearly passionately felt, explanation and argument in favor of the qualitative contribution of a people to the polity of the USA, and, through the USA, to the world beyond.
- Review by Dr. Professor Michael Eula:
The work of Alexander L. Klieforth and Robert J. Munro in The Scottish Invention of America is a fascinating and important account of the role played by Scottish political theorists in the development of what would later be understood as classical liberalism. This is a monograph worth studying for a number of reasons. It is, simultaneously, an analysis of early Scottish notions of individual freedom, limited, centralized political power and the idea of “consent of the governed” which will later come to play such a pivotal role in the writings of such English theorists such as John Locke. The reference to Locke brings me to the other level of analysis in this book that makes its scholarly worth all the more obvious. Klieforth and Munro make a persuasive argument that the long-established assumption that English theorists such as Locke played an almost exclusive role in the formation of classical liberal thought is one that is, to put it mildly, ahistorical. They provide convincing and consistent evidence that classical liberalism, typically linked with such theorists as Locke and Thomas Hobbes, has in reality, a Scottish background that is overlooked. All those interested in the intellectual history of democracy in general, and the development of “consent of the governed” in particular, will find this book to be both important and indispensable. This is a monograph destined be an integral part of the historiography of Western liberalism, notions of democracy and the role of individual freedom.
- Review by Frank Shaw, The Family Tree, 7-5-04:
This is a book about the birth and history of liberty and freedom from a Celtic-Scottish viewpoint. The authors set out to prove that democracy and human rights have deep roots in Scotland. The case is well made. The authors exhaustively review the impact of the Scots in these two areas. The authors present strong and compelling proof that the roots of liberty and the struggles for freedom for individuals and nations date back to the ancient Celts, followed by the Scottish struggle for independence. Most notably, you will learn there was a lot more to John Duns Scotus than theological papers. In my opinion, he is the backbone for this book, and it would benefit all interested Scots to re-read Scotus. Scotus championed human rights, individual freedom and basically a government that exists with the consent of the people. Any lover of Scottish books will want this unique book in his or her library. Any lover of freedom will find this a “must have” book. It is a refreshing writing that offers new insights regarding our freedom – as individuals and as a nation. The serious Scottish student will have a wonderful time with this book. The authors have done all of us a favor by writing it, so do yourself one and purchase it! Klieforth and Munro have included a masterful fifty-page chronology of Celtic, Scottish and American events. You will spend many enjoyable hours with this publication.